Ukraine’s disappeared: How Russia uses abductions to win control


On March 21, Natali called her father to wish him a happy birthday. It was Viktor Maruniak’s 60th, but, on the phone, he sounded sad and nervous. Maruniak is the starosta, or elected head, of Stara Zbur’ivka, a village more than an hour outside of Kherson, a city in southern Ukraine. Russian forces now occupied it, Maruniak told Natali. He would call her back later. “And I told him, ‘Okay, I will wait for you, please call me back,’” she said.

Natali’s father never did.

She learned later, through relatives, that Russian soldiers took Maruniak from the home he shared with his wife. On the morning of March 23, Russian forces returned, with Maruniak in handcuffs.

The Russian soldiers searched the house, relatives told Natali, though what the soldiers were looking for remains unclear. They ripped the flowers out of their pots. They found the money, even the bills they’d hidden carefully, and they took that along with other valuables, and the candy and the nuts. They destroyed the furniture. The soldiers examined a hole in the yard dug by the dog, suspicious of the loose soil.

“Woman, calm down,” soldiers told Maruniak’s wife, according to Natali. “Maybe it’s the last time you see your husband.”

She saw her husband one more time, on March 24. He returned again with soldiers, though this time, they covered their faces. “Feed him, change his socks, and give him his medicine,” they ordered Maruniak’s wife. As she did, she noticed his legs were bruised blue. There was another bruise on his right temple, another on his arm. Maruniak said nothing, only that it was cold where he was being held.

That was the last Maruniak’s family saw or heard anything about him.

A photograph of Viktor Maruniak, an elected official of a village in southern Ukraine. According to his daughter, Natali, he was taken by Russian soldiers and has been missing since March 24.
Courtesy of Natali

Maruniak is among dozens of local officials or community leaders who have been abducted or arbitrarily arrested by Russian forces as they seized territory in Ukraine, especially in the east and the south. These disappearances are both an attempt to coerce cooperation and a targeted effort to silence and intimidate Ukrainians who may oppose or organize against a Russian occupation.

The disappearances, said Tetiana Pechonchyk, the head of Human Rights Centre ZMINA, a Ukraine-based organization, are intended to “stop the resilience of local population and to incline the local mayors, active members of local communities, who have authority in this community, to press them to collaborate with the occupiers.”

The United Nations Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine has documented about 109 cases of suspected detention or enforced disappearances among civilians since February 24, including 48 local officials. The UN and other human rights groups have confirmed disappearances among other members of civil society: volunteers, activists, journalists, religious leaders, protesters, and former military veterans. (Vox reached out to the Russian Embassy for comment, but did not receive a response.)

Anastasiia Moskvychova, who has been tracking disappearances for ZMINA, says they have confirmed more than 100 arbitrary detentions since February 24; about 50 people are still missing.

But Oleksandra Matviichuk, a Kyiv-based activist and head of the Center for Civil Liberties, said these numbers are only the “top of the iceberg.” Her group is tracking dozens more suspected cases of enforced disappearances, but they are still trying to corroborate evidence, a task that’s all the more difficult in Russian-occupied areas. Other times, family and friends of the suspected victims fear making that information public.

Fear is why disappearances happen. It is a particularly insidious human rights violation and a technique utilized by US-backed dictators in Latin America in the 20th century, Nazi Germany, and other regimes around the world. Individuals are arbitrarily arrested or detained by a government — or affiliated groups like security services, local militias, and criminal gangs — and because disappearances happen outside the bounds of the law, there’s often little recourse. “State denial is an essential part of a disappearance,” said Freek van der Vet, a researcher at the University of Helsinki’s institute of international law and human rights. “Somebody would disappear, and now authorities, or occupying forces, would deny they are responsible for the disappearance.”

These tactics did not begin with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24; they are a continuation of a strategy used before, including during Russia’s military campaigns in Chechnya and in Ukraine. After Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula in 2014 and invaded the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine in support of a separatist movement, activists and journalists and officials were abducted and detained in these regions.

“It’s the repetition of the Russian playbook,” said Mattia Nelles, a political analyst specializing in Russia and Ukraine. “It’s definitely a concerted effort of intimidation that we see in the now-occupied areas in the south and east, but also in the north.”

All of this foreshadows how Russia might try to consolidate control in Ukrainian areas it captures by force. The Russian occupation is still being met with defiance; people are protesting, those who have been kidnapped and released are speaking out. But human rights advocates and experts worry that, as the war continues, Russian forces may ratchet up this repression, and carry out more enforced disappearances, along with other possible war crimes. The United States raised this possibility to the United Nations ahead of Russia’s invasion.

“What we see now,” Nelles said, “foreshadows how the Russians will govern.”

What’s happening in Ukraine has happened before

In late March, Svetlana Zalizetskaya, a journalist who ran a news outlet in Melitopol, a city in southeastern Ukraine currently under Russian control, got a call from the men who detained her father. She asked what they wanted. “We want you to be here,” came the reply.

Zalizetskaya, who had already left Melitopol, told them she would not return. Instead, referencing a viral clip of Ukrainians on Snake Island talking to a Russian warship, she told the men they could go where that warship went — that is, to “go fuck yourself.”

On March 25, she got another call from a man who she referred to as Sergei. She demanded he let her father go. “When you stop writing bad stuff,” he told her. In another call, Sergei accused Zalizetskaya of causing the deaths of Russian soldiers with her writing. “Why me? You came to our land and you’re killing us,” Zalizetskaya shot back. “I’m not guilty in the death of your soldiers.”

Zalizetskaya, though, understood this back-and-forth would not go anywhere. Her 75-year-old father had recently had a stroke, and he needed his blood pressure medication. So she made a deal: on her Facebook page, she would post that she no longer owned the Melitopol news outlet, in exchange for her father’s “evacuation” — the words his captors used, she emphasized.

Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told CNN in March that he was not aware of any disappearances among journalists or civil society activists, despite well-documented reports from human rights groups. And these organizations have seen what happened to Zalizetskaya’s family happen before in Russian-occupied territories.

“We can clearly state that it is a deliberate policy,” Matviichuk said. “This is like a method of conducting warfare.”

Extrajudicial arrests happen within Russia, but they are documented more frequently in Russia’s other territories, including Dagestan and Chechnya, where enforced disappearances became what Human Rights Watch described as an “enduring feature” of the conflict.

In Crimea, ethnic Tatars, who tended to oppose Russia’s annexation in 2014, were targeted, including one local activist and leader who was allegedly kidnapped by men in Russian traffic police uniforms in 2016. In the Donbas, militias kidnapped, tortured, and killed a local city council member who tried to take down a flag of the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic. “They hunted after the activists, after the persons who supported the Ukrainian army, Ukrainian volunteers,” said Oleksandr Pavlichenko, executive director of the Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union.

“Now we see the same scheme,” Pavlichenko added, “and it’s only the beginning of this scheme.”

Disappearances are one element of the scheme; the other is what happens after that. Advocates say they have credible evidence — including from those who have been released since 2014 — that those being held are interrogated, and sometimes tortured, physically and mentally, and sometimes killed. Zalizetskaya said that her father was never beaten, but interrogated nightly: “They just repeated the same question: ‘Why are you arrested?’ And he was answering, ‘because of my last name.’”

Natali noted that what little information her relatives had about her father’s disappearance, they knew he was cold. “They hold people in conditions which can be torture itself,” Matviichuk said. The longer people stay disappeared, the more likely they are to be killed, though confirmation of that is often difficult to obtain.

Human rights watchers and experts say it is often difficult to say who is carrying out disappearances, or subsequent mistreatment — including in Ukraine right now. “The state actors are not interested in accountability for those kinds of abuses, so it creates this environment of impunity,” said Saskia Brechenmacher, a fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace who has researched Russian civil society.

That can make it hard to know exactly how organized these actions are, or whether they are directed top-down from Moscow, the work of local units or security services, or militias affiliated with Moscow.

Eugenia Andreyuk, a human rights adviser at the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT), said that some of those detained in Ukraine are arrested just days after Russia takes a city, and Russian forces often come directly to activists’ houses. That speed has led researchers to suspect Russia knew who they were targeting. Russian authorities, Andreyuk said, were “equipped for this.” Her colleague, Maryia Kvitsinskaya, regional consultant for the OMCT, said they are seeing military veterans being targeted in the smallest of villages. “For me, it’s a question of how they got the list of these people,” she said.

Ahead of the invasion, the United States told the United Nations it had credible information that Moscow was compiling lists of Ukrainians to be “killed or sent to camps.” Advocates do not have confirmation of such lists, or who may have compiled them if they do exist, but emphasized that this campaign of disappearances is not random.

“It’s not happening as some chaotic or spontaneous thing,” Andreyuk said. “This is very targeted detentions — and it’s a very targeted policy to get more control over society.”

A foreshadowing of how Russia will occupy these zones

Natali said there still is no information about her father. Her family has heard some rumors, including that a woman was taken to a pretrial detention center in Kherson, and might have seen Maruniak. If it was her father, he was skin and bones. Natali and her relatives still do not know what the Russian soldiers were looking at his home. She heard they might have been looking for weapons or guns, but her dad was not connected to military servicemen.

Again, this not knowing is the point. “[People] never know if somebody has died, or is still alive, or if they would ever return, and I think that creates the fear in society in general. Could this happen to me?” Van der Vet, of the University of Helsinki, said.

Viktor Maruniak’s family says Russian soldiers took him from the family home. “Everyone is afraid to talk in the village,” his daughter said.
Courtesy of Natali

Disappearances terrorize the local population, but Russia’s ultimate goal is to consolidate power, either through direct control or pro-Russian proxies. This is why civil society activists — those who can organize a peaceful resistance to occupation — are often the first targeted.

The detention of local authorities is also an effort to win legitimacy. “If you can get mayors, or elected officials, to say that ‘okay, they support the new order,’ I think that’s very important,” said Oxana Shevel, associate professor of political science at Tufts University.

If they cannot win that cooperation, the abduction of a local leader gives the Russian military the opportunity to install a more pliant figure, as Russian personnel attempted to do in Melitopol. (In that case, surveillance video showed the capture of the elected mayor, Ivan Fedorov, with a bag over his head; he has since been freed, and has continued to speak about his capture.)

Added together, these disappearances help create a “Stalin-like” police state, a rule through terror and mistrust, and where nobody knows what — or who — might make them a target of disappearance. “If you just keep silent, it is also suspicious,” Pavlichenko said.

Those who have tracked disappearances in Ukraine since 2014 point out that, as brutal as that campaign was, this latest chapter is different. The Ukrainian population in places like Kherson and Melitopol have continued to protest and resist the invasion — even after evidence of kidnappings. “We’re really afraid that we will have more and more cases [of enforced disappearances],” Kvitsinskaya said. “Because what we see — it’s really the way how Russia’s military responds when civilians don’t want to cooperate with them.”

After her father’s kidnapping, Natali says that few people will come to her father’s house anymore. “Everyone is afraid to talk in the village,” she said. Her father’s wife is afraid too, but of leaving the house. “What if they will bring her husband home when she wouldn’t be there?” she said. “So she’s just waiting for him.”

Update, April 8, 2022, 11 am ET: This story has been updated with new data on disappearances from the United Nations Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine.